Dystopias and Anti-Heroes

This weekend, as Jim and I were cutting up vegetables for curry, we ended up talking about dystopias and anti-heroes.

We Can Be Heroes

We Can Be Heroes

Seriously…  We really did.  This is NOT just an excuse for a topic.

Anyhow, Jim was saying how he didn’t much like fiction set in dystopias.  Knowing something of his reading and viewing preferences, I told him I didn’t think this was actually the case.  I pointed out that lots of very good stories take place in dystopian settings.  A dystopia is simply a fictional setting which is diseased or corrupt either (or sometimes both) politically or environmentally.  Such settings are often very good for fiction because the protagonists have a lot of challenges to work against.

During the Cold War, these dystopias were often under the control of totalitarian governments who pretended to be promoting some ostensibly positive philosophy (usually a variation on socialism or communism), but were really creating a tiered society in which those on top lived a lot better than the bulk of the population.

These days, environmental catastrophes (rather than an abstract political philosophy) have become the reason for the dominating regime to become established.  The world is in trouble.  Extreme control is needed.  The mass of the population is subjected to severe, even harsh, restrictions.  As with the earlier incarnations, there is usually a segment of the population who is living very well – in direct contrast to the policies they enforce.

In both these earlier and later trends of fictional dystopias, the government may be a theocracy of some sort. (Although sometimes the “god” is a leader, since Marxist philosophy speaks out against organized religion.) After all, what better way to maintain control than to have the divine on your side?

Jim and I started discussing books and movies we’d both enjoyed that used dystopian settings.  I mentioned Heinlein’s various “Crazy Years” stories.  Jim brought up the movies Rollerball and Blade Runner.  I mentioned Pratchett’s Small Gods.  Jim mentioned Zelazny’s Lord of Light. From there we went on to a lot of the cyberpunk material.  In the end, we both agreed that it wasn’t the dystopian settings we disliked, but the frequent cases where dystopias seemed to become an excuse for authors to create whining, unattractive, and simply just plain annoying and/or ineffectual characters whom we’re supposed to accept (or at least pity) because they are against (or oppressed by) the dystopian regime.

For this reason, neither of us much cared for Orwell’s classics 1984 or Animal Farm.  Or Huxley‘s Brave New World.

This led us to anti-heroes.  Anti-heroes are a more difficult concept to define than dystopia because the question of what is heroic and what is not heroic shifts with both the time period and the culture.  Even the definitions of the term vary from source to source.   (Take a look on-line if you’re curious).  Some definitions say that the anti-hero has “no” heroic qualities.  Others say that anti-heroes are lacking in some heroic qualities, while possessing others.

If I were to take a stab at a definition, I would say that an anti-hero behaves in a recognizably heroic fashion in some sense, but does not embrace the idealized concept of how a hero should behave.

What do I mean by behaving in a “recognizably heroic fashion in some sense”?  Usually, the anti-hero is on the side of what would be recognized as “good.”  He might be a bit of a bully, but he’s our bully, fighting worse bullies.  She might be a vigilante (therefore, outside of the law), but the people she’s taking down are operating in a fashion so that the law cannot  or (as is often the case in a dystopia) will not touch them.

As for the idealized concept of how a hero might behave…  Its evolution is so complex that I can’t possibly cover it all here.  However, one of the major influences on the modern concept of the hero in “Western” civilization were the medieval courtly and chivalric romances.  These included the concepts of a fair fight, treating a lady with courtesy, and honoring your ruler (and often his legal code).

While serving as a fine, civilizing influence, these chivalric romances were not in the least practical, nor were their ideals followed in “real life.”  Nevertheless, the concept is so attractive that it keeps cropping up.  You find an updated version in many Westerns (novels, television shows, and movies), where the “white hat” hero won’t shoot to kill, is more likely to kiss his horse than the girl, and does his good deed, then rides off into the sunset without asking for reward – or even thanks.

Early Science Fiction, especially space operas – which were often Westerns translated into outer space, rather than being set on a more or less historical frontier – also adopted these ideas.

As I said above, the concept of heroic behavior changes with time periods and cultures.  The Greek hero Theseus was considered a great hero at the time his stories originated, but I doubt that someone who builds his reputation by brawling, murdering, and stealing, and even abandons the girl who gave up everything to help him, would be considered a hero today.   John Gardner’s novel Grendel retold the Beowulf saga from the monster’s point of view – and showed the burly hero in a much more unattractive light than he would have been seen by the culture which created him.

Robin Hood is a great example of how the reasons behind actions, rather than the actions themselves, make the difference between an anti-hero and a villain.  If Robin Hood had robbed from the rich to line his pockets, he would have been a villain.  However, because he robs from the rich to give to the poor and flouts the law to correct its abuses, he is an anti-hero.  The classic film with Errol Flynn shows this perfectly.   Maid Marian’s view of the dashing rogue doesn’t change because he is charming and has a brilliant smile, but because she sees what he does for others.

I think one reason we like anti-heroes is that they are more believable than idealized heroes.  As much as we love the Lone Ranger (classic version), it’s hard to believe that we’d be able to shoot to wound when being rushed by a dozen furious outlaws, all armed to the teeth.  Arthurian legend shows how vulnerable a hero becomes when an impersonal code replaces personal justice.

Yet, as appealing as anti-heroes can be, writing them well is a dangerous balancing act.  It’s far too easy for an anti-hero to slip over the line into villainy.  Carrie Vaughn dealt with this challenge beautifully in her “Kitty” books.  The vampire hunter Cormac steps over the line and goes to jail for it – this despite the fact that he is an appealing character, one who had helped Kitty a great deal in her adjustment to the supernatural world.  I’m sure I’m not the only reader who expected to pick up the book following Cormac’s arrest to find that he’d escaped or gotten off or a technicality.  It was refreshing to find a story where, when the anti-hero steps over the line into villainy, he pays the price.

So, dystopias and anti-heroes…  Like them?  Hate them?  Tired of them?  I’d love to know.  And I hope to see some of you this weekend at Bubonicon, right here in sunny New Mexico.

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8 Responses to “Dystopias and Anti-Heroes”

  1. paulgenesse Says:

    Hi Jane,

    I must make it to Bubicon someday. Have fun! I’ll be at World Con in two weeks. Anyway, I do like Carrie Vaughn’s Kitty books. Such a great concept, though I’ve only read the first two and loved them.

    I actually do like anti-heroes, as they are quite interesting, though in the end I prefer my heroes to be “mostly” good. Michael Moorcock’s Elric was fascinating, and the anti-hero I think of immediately. For me, since I don’t read that many books (compared to some), I’m not tired of dystopian novels as many readers are.

    The ones I read and enjoyed most over the past few years are: Maze Runner by James Dashner, The Hunger Games, and Partials by Dan Wells. I know there are more, but those books were really good.

    Paul Genesse

  2. Heteromeles Says:

    An interesting, and small note, is how often disasters bring out the best in people, rather than the worst. Rebecca Solnit’s Paradise Built in Hell (see review at http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/21/books/21book.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0) talks about this in some detail.

    While authoritarian dystopias revolving around environmental disasters may express our fears, it’s not clear that they express a reality, and that’s the potentially a huge problem with them. It’s also a bigger problem for futuristic fiction. one of the things we need from futuristic fiction is the idea that there’s something worth living for in the future. An environmental dystopia may be entertaining, but it’s also an excuse to not act to make things better now. After all, if the future’s going to suck regardless of anything we do, why do anything but party while we still can?

    A rather more interesting challenge is showing someone living a meaningful life under difficult conditions. Not many people are taking up that challenge.

  3. Nicholas Wells Says:

    I don’t mind dystopias at all. As you said, it lets us cheer on the protagonist as he/she fights past the struggles. My problem is lately the anti-heros we’ve been getting are straight up jerks, low-lifes, and other things that make it impossible to root for them. Half the time I want them dead as much as the bad guys. A prime example is the movie “Lockdown”. The bad story was bad enough, but there was nothing, and I mean NOTHING, in the “hero” to like. I don’t mind a hero with flaws. It’s what makes us human. But when the guy is just as much a criminal as the bad guys, I have a hard time rooting for them. Or they’re so full of themselves, or arrogant, or mean, or whatever, it’s like, “Give me a hero. Just one for a change.”

    It’s why I loved the last Captain America movie. This was a true hero. He wanted to fight, but they put him on tour. He hated it, but he did it, until he got his chance to prove himself. He didn’t hold back, but nor was he a *censored*. In fact, even at the end when asked what made him special, he was still saying, “Nothing. I’m just a kid from Brooklyn.” He meant it too. I LOVE THAT!

    I get the concept. “Oh, it’s all about redemption, the bad guy turning it around.” Well, first off, it’s so much the norm it’s over done. Second, they’re so bad to start with it’s hard to get into them. And third, often times they don’t lose the bad qualities, they just keep swallowed by a cause that wasn’t theirs, but for what ever reason, they’re in it.

    Give me flaws. Naivete, short-sightedness, rash, doesn’t think it through, short temper, flaws. Things not quite perfect, but his heart is still in the right place. Not these thugs, bullies, and sex addicts who will likely still be thugs, bullies and sex addicts by the end of the book/movie.

  4. Paul Says:

    Nicholas has expressed it perfectly. Characters are supposed to change, especially anti-heroes. See, for an obvious example, Han Solo — or even Darth Vader. I’m tired, too, of books that want you to root for the bad guys simply because their “badder” than their antagonists.
    My first dystopia, although I don’t think they were called that back in the ’50s, was Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” which was still “the future” back then. Shortly after came Kurt Vonnegut’s “Player Piano,” which I read as a 35-cent paperback retitled “Utopia 14” (my 75-cent weekly allowance caused me to wait a few weeks at that price before finally giving in and buying it off the local newsstand spinnerrack; most paperbacks were a quarter!). Those are still pretty good examples.

    • Alan Robson Says:

      Paul’s nailed it as far as I’m concerned. 1984 (and the other novels that Jane doesn’t like) are my very favourite dystopias. And Kurt Vonnegut got it absolutely right in novel after novel. Well said, Paul — very well said.


      -Alan

  5. Heteromeles Says:

    Absolutely. I think Nick hit it. There’s even a TV Trope entry on it “Gray vs. Black Morality”). There are some \anti-heroes we root for (Vetinari and Conan come to mind), but it’s lazy to put a jerk “on our side” and assume we’ll root for him because the other side’s even more repugnant.

    As for dystopias, I wanted to add that a sustainable world might meet most people’s definition of a dystopia. Consider, for example, the old Spanish dehesas. They are (traditionally) pretty sustainable, and while everyone works hard and gets by, no one gets rich. Dystopias are (to some degree) in the eye of the beholder.

  6. janelindskold Says:

    I have the good fortune to have met Nicholas, so I want to add a point to his comment… He’s in his mid-twenties, precisely the age that Hollywood believes wants dark and nasty anti-heroes. He also works in a movie theater and so sees a LOT of films.

  7. Barbara Joan Says:

    I just finished reading Miracle at Santa Anna and there is a dystopia (if you can call a time and place that actually existed a dystopia), It’s also filled with heroes and anti-heroes that are running around in my head.

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